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Building Staff Rapport With Flash Lessons

Brian Kulak

Stay relevant. Stay engaged. Stay positive.
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Six preteen students are standing on their classroom desks, smiling, and one student is sitting.

During my first year as Chief Academic Officer of Collingswood (New Jersey) Public Schools, I visited just about every classroom in our eight-building district at least once. I thought it was imperative for me to see as many teachers as possible, to immerse myself in our district's culture, and to build rapport.

Now, a year later, I'm blessed to have made real connections with many teachers. So, on a random Sunday, I reached out to those folks, told them that I had an idea bouncing around my head, which I dubbed flash lessons, and hoped for the best.

The Purpose

At its core, the purpose of the flash lesson is to work with as many teachers as possible. Each lesson is:

  • Catered to both the teacher and his or her students
  • An invitation for the teacher to become a student again
  • A reminder that administrators were once teachers, too

The Invitation

For teachers who don't yet trust and respect me, an invitation won't be extended -- and that's OK. Teachers are, by nature, protective of their practice and their space. In this way, even before I enter a teacher's room, I must establish the requisite rapport to garner the invitation. From there, the teacher picks the class, the day, and the time. Then she gives me a sense of what she's doing, has just finished, or will be doing soon. Finally, I show up and get to work.

The Rules

The spirit of the flash lesson is, like a bolt of lightning, unpredictable. I tell the teacher as little as possible about what I have planned because I want him to be completely vulnerable and, quite frankly, a student in his own class. When I have a question, I call on the teacher first. When I need a volunteer, he is my first participant.

The Lesson

My first volunteer, Sarah, is a third-year, middle school language arts teacher with whom I've become close. She's bright, funny, and incredibly driven. In her room is an in-class support teacher, Ryan, who doubles as a high school social studies teacher.

After showing the final scene from Dead Poets Society, during which Mr. Keating's students stand on their desks and say, "Captain, my Captain" in a show of protest over their teacher's dismissal, I asked the class, and the teachers, if they had any idea what I had planned.

"You're going to make us stand on our desks?" suggested one precocious seventh- grade student.

"Exactly," I said.

And we were off.

Meant to create controlled discomfort and to elicit honest, impromptu responses, this flash lesson focused on public speaking during which participants, while standing on their desks, complete phrases, prompts, or statements that I created.

The first participant was Ryan, who responded to this prompt: "The most important person. . . ever." When he finished his response, which centered on his relationship with his father, the reverent silence was broken by his students' raucous applause.

By the end of the period, most of the kids had requested to participate twice, we had stumbled upon several valuable public speaking strategies, and we had laughed the whole time.

But it was the first response, by a teacher, that made my first flash lesson a success because, while I love our students, this kind of exercise is actually designed for our teachers.

The Aftermath

Ultimately, I had no idea if anyone would invite me in. Moreover, I didn't know if the lessons would work once I was invited. What I learned, however, is that only the former matters. Like an educational grandparent, if I show up and the lesson bombs, I get to leave and let the teacher move on without me. But the fact that teachers are willing to give up control of their rooms -- to an administrator -- without so much as a hint about what will happen when I get there, well, that's how I know the flashes are working.

Since that first lesson, I have gone on to teach lessons on thermochemistry, evolution, World War II, and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. For all but one, I admit to having only a Google-search-based knowledge of the content, yet teachers keep inviting me in.

Too often, administrators leave the classroom and only return with a laptop and a framework. For many of us, leaving the classroom is really only a physical phenomenon because we never really leave. I confess that my flash lessons are motivated, in small part, by my own envy of so many amazing teachers who work in my district. But what I couldn't have counted on was the camaraderie, rapport, and trust that the lessons would create between administrators and teachers.

I will never understand why some administrators struggle to build rapport with teachers. Most administrators were once teachers, and, in some way, we always will be. Ultimately, we need to remind ourselves of that immutable fact, to be as human as possible, and to look for, rather than to abandon, our own "flashes."

If you're an administrator, how do you stay involved with your teachers and their students? Please share your own strategies and experiences in the comments section of this post.

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Peter's picture

It may well be that you have a personality that can pull this off, but if my administrator wants to establish rapport with me, I'd rather he addressed me as an equal rather than creating a situation where he's the adult and I'm not. It just seems to reinforce a power dynamic that's not conducive to collegiality-- and to do it right in front of the students.

You're welcome in my classroom any time, and I'd happily have you come in to teach a lesson or co-teach a lesson with me. But I'm already well aware that I am a student and learner every day, and if you want to connect with me, you might want to consider more than the idea that you have something to teach me, but that you might learn something from me as well. Come be a guest teacher in my class, or come be a guest student. But I don't really need you to come in and sell the lesson, "See, kids? Your teacher answers to me."

Brian Kulak's picture
Brian Kulak
Stay relevant. Stay engaged. Stay positive.

Peter~You make so many good points, and chief among them is that this isn't for everyone. I'll reiterate that flash lessons only happen by invitation. So the possibility exists that I never do another one, and that's totally fine. I also assure you that I'm not interested in "pulling anything off." I just feel like admins fall into one of two categories (and the really good ones fall into both): managers and instructional leaders. I am also very fortunate to work in a progressive district with a supportive superintendent.

Sadly, some of the negative posts on here suggest an admin-teacher divide, which I certainly understand, but which is not present in my district.

Ljmitchell724's picture

I have worked with an administrator who observed a lesson then taught it his way and observed as I re-taught it using some the strategies he employed. It was a great experience for me and I learned so much that day...not only about the strategies he used, but about the timing of lessons and student engagement. It was a valuable experience for me.

Your "flash" lessons sound like great rapport builders and I am curious to know more about them.

Brian Kulak's picture
Brian Kulak
Stay relevant. Stay engaged. Stay positive.

That sounds great, LJ! But I need to make clear that I'm not interested in re-teaching anything (though I would if someone asked). I'm really interested in dissolving the unnecessary and blurry line that often divides admins-teachers. I just had this convo with a teacher yesterday. I actually can't stand the title "administrator." I understand that it's just what my position is called, but I wish we were all called "instructional leaders" instead. The flash lessons help to remind everyone in the room that we're all life-long learners. As I said in the piece, I am in awe of the teachers in our district, and, frankly, look back on my time in the classroom as woefully inadequate by comparison. I've learned so much about quality instruction, trust, camaraderie, and leadership just by getting back in front of the class because of a like-minded educator's invitation. I would invite you, or your building leader, to try it and share about the experience.

Thanks so much for reading and for the feedback!

Noreen Contarino's picture
Noreen Contarino
High school English/Special Education teacher from Moorestown, NJ

I admire that Mr. Kulak is inventive and not afraid to try something different. Too often there is a great divide between teachers and admins; I am very lucky that our administrators are very accessible, understanding and professional. I for one am going to experiment with the "Captain, my Captain" lesson format in my class at a private high school for behavioral students, with the help (and participation) from our teaching assistants. Way to go, Mr. Kulak! You are an awesome proponent of teacher-student engagement.

Brian Kulak's picture
Brian Kulak
Stay relevant. Stay engaged. Stay positive.

Noreen~Thanks so much for reading and for the kind words. I do hope you try it, or something similar, and let me know how it goes. Plus, you're right in Moorestown, so think about coming to our Edcamp in Collingswood on 4/29. I'd love to meet and learn with you!

Lauren's picture

I love this strategy. I am the principal of a small school and I get into each classroom in some way every day. I take lots of pictures and share those on social media and in my weekly staff newsletter. I also share some of the great learning activities that I saw during the day on afternoon announcements and I have share students' work or have students share a great book on morning announcements.

Brian Kulak's picture
Brian Kulak
Stay relevant. Stay engaged. Stay positive.

Lauren: Thanks so much for reading and responding. I think you're in a unique position because in a small school you can really do some cool things with your staff. We are also proponents of social media and celebrating our kids and teachers. Sounds like you are an excellent leader. If you try a flash lesson, please let me know! Enjoy the rest of the year and here's to a smooth closing and relaxing summer!

Steve's picture
Steve
Science Teacher and Technology Coordinator from Naperville, IL

I love the idea. I really like the idea that it might break down some of the silos that exist in schools. We too often think of ourselves as content experts and the center of knowledge in our classrooms. 2o years ago it may have just been the teacher and the textbook as the expert in the room, but today anyone can be an expert about a topic if they are connected. Of course, we need to help students develop the skill set to engage in information. The key to do this well is not content knowledge. The key is good teaching pedagogy and the willingness to take a risk. Teachers must be learners first!

Brian Kulak's picture
Brian Kulak
Stay relevant. Stay engaged. Stay positive.

Wow, I couldn't have said it better myself, Steve. Can I use you as a marketing strategist? Risk, productive struggle, and vulnerability are all hallmarks of my superintendent's leadership. Without a leader like him, I never would have tried this. I hope you, or someone in your district, tries this and lets me know.

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